Using Prompts to Improve Your Story (And Beat Writer’s Block!)

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We’ve all worked with prompts before. Our teachers threw them at us in school, and many of us still have books FULL of prompts sitting on our writing shelf. What are they really for, though? If you already have a story idea, why do you need a bunch of “What if?” scenarios? Well, you may be surprised how versatile a stranger’s suggestion can be.

See Your Work in a New Way

You obsess over every detail. You think so much about your story that you’re afraid to start writing because you may miss something or fail to translate what’s in your head accurately. This level of obsessive perfectionism freezes many writers, and they never really start. Prompts can help you reexamine your entire project with a tiny suggestion.

Prompts give you the chance to bring your story back to life and thaw your arctic indecision. Imagine what would happen if this or that happened. How would it change your story? Write a short scene in that alternate universe. Now you’re writing. You’re relaxed. Pretend this alternate universe is the original story. You can treat your original story as a fanfic of this AU. The pressure is off. You also remember that things like plot and character arcs aren’t set in stone. Magic.

Challenge Your Characters

Your hero has a tragic backstory, and you know what you want them to do. Maybe you even have their motivation figured out, but they don’t feel real. Prompts help break the ice between you and your creations. List what’s in your character’s trunk, decide their favorite vacation destination or meal. What is their zodiac sign? How do they feel about superstitions? How do they mark up their planners?

Adjust questions to match the world you’re writing in, or imagine your character in a modern setting. You’ve probably use people from real life as inspiration for characters who may not even be human in your scifi or fantasy epic, right? Flipping the script and giving a nebulous character some real-world elements may just help you connect with them.

Reevaluate Setting

Do your characters live in an environment that makes them and their quirks more interesting? Does the setting show them off to their best advantage, or does it make them feel dull? Prompts can help you break clichés and slip free from stereotypical arrangements. Does your hero begin as a farm boy in a boring town you feel obligated to describe in the first few chapters?

Boring settings often make interesting characters boring. Use prompts to shake things up. Maybe it’s an industrial farmstead utilizing slave labor via generational debt. There could be soldiers around to protect the crops. Maybe, even though he lives on a farm, the hero isn’t a farmer, doesn’t belong there, and is already engaged in an adventure. You don’t have to give up on all of your ideas, but consider how they could be spicier or more engaging. Prompts are a great way to add background drama from the start.

Introduce Your Plot

Speaking of starts, prompts help build beginnings. Working with a sprawling story like an epic fantasy or a complex political thriller gets messy, but it also gets frustrating because you always face the question: where do I start? Characters might know each other before the first chapter, or maybe their introduction kicks off the drama. Where do things begin? Prompts give you permission to experiment. Try starting with different scenes, in different eras, with different characters. Use prompts that set up a conflict you hadn’t considered, and be willing to adjust your book’s plot a little as new opportunities appear. A little prompt can make a great change.

So, where could your big project use some fresh inspiration? Are you ready to sell the old farmstead setting, or is it time to spend some quality time with your heroes? The next time writer’s block strikes, break out the writing prompts!

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